Be alive – In learning, leading and prayer

Do you feel vigorously alive each day? Or must you “bleed just to know you’re alive?”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in A Letter in the Scroll, offered a remarkable insight into the traditional Jewish psyche: “Jews were always a tiny people, yet our ancestors survived by believing that eternity is found in the simple lives of ordinary human beings. They found God in homes, families and relationships” (52). As Rabbi Sacks wrote, the Jewish religion proposes that simply turning on our souls can connect us to a miraculous existence. jonathan sacks image

I have encountered too many people who wait to truly live their lives. Many wait until retirement, or “when life is less busy”; unfortunately, by then the ability to live fully has tragically been drained from the soul. Living fully cannot, and should not, be put on hold. The mind and soul are instruments that must constantly be played to keep the music alive.

Meditation and prayer is, of course, one vehicle to light our souls on fire. Prayer needs to emanate from our being and be meaningful, not just a thoughtless recitation of liturgy. The great Rabbi and philosopher Bahya Ibn Paquda, also known as Rabbeinu Bachya, wrote: “Prayer without kavanah (spiritual focus) is like a body without a soul.” Similarly, the renowned Maimonides taught: “True kavanah means freedom from all extraneous thought and complete awareness of the self within the greater presence of the Divine.” Consider the advice of the great American poet Mary Oliver, in her poem “Praying”:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

It is a perpetual struggle, and we must always work to instill in ourselves this imperfect yearning. We cannot lapse into a rhythmic routine, but must approach prayer with a sense of wonder and amazement at the beauty and meaning of what we are doing. Scientist Max Planck explained his perspective regarding scientific inquiry:

The feeling of wonderment is the source and inexhaustible fountainhead of the desire for knowledge. It drives the child irresistibly on to solve the mystery, and if in his attempt he encounters a causal relationship, he will not tire of repeating the same experiment ten times – a hundred times – in order to taste the thrill of discovery over and over again. The reason why the adult no longer wonders is not because he has solved the riddle of life, but because he has grown accustomed to the laws governing this world picture. But the problem of why these particular laws, and no others, hold, remains for him just as amazing and inexplicable as for the child. He who does not comprehend this situation, misconstrues its profound significance, and he who has reached the stage where he no longer wonders about anything, merely demonstrates that he has lost the art of reflective reasoning (Scientific Biography, 1949, 91-93).

Just as Planck explains how age and routine make us lose our sense of wonder, the same applies with prayer and meditation. We simply grow accustomed and too familiar with the process, the words, and the actions. However, as Planck says, the wonder and amazement still exists, in fact it abounds. We are just misunderstanding and not fully comprehending the situation – we are “misconstru[ing] its profound significance.”

We must endeavor to keep the ideals of our religion, of our prayers, and of our learning alive, regardless of this challenge. The philosopher Susan Neiman writes that keeping ideals alive can oftentimes seem a losing battle, an unattainable goal that can cause great distress, but human dignity requires the love of our ideals:

Keeping ideals alive is much harder than dismissing them, for it guarantees a lifetime of dissatisfaction. Ideals are like horizons – goals toward which you can move but never actually attain. Human dignity requires the love of ideals for their own sake, but nothing guarantees that the love will be requited. You might fail to reach your object, all your life long (Moral Clarity, 159).

The honored academic and former politician Michael Ignatieff has suggested, in an article published in the New York Times Magazine, that it is idealism (as opposed to relativism) that has made the United States a unique country:

A relativist America is properly inconceivable. Leave relativism, complexity and realism to other nations. America is the last nation left whose citizens don’t laugh out loud when their leader asks God to bless the country and further its mighty work of freedom. It is the last country with a mission, a mandate and a dream, as old as its founders. All of this may be dangerous, even delusional, but it is also unavoidable. It is impossible to think of America without these properties of self-belief.

The Jewish people, much like America, are a people of our ideals. We are a people who have upheld our ideals for thousands of years and have endured vicious, hateful, and murderous persecution because of our steadfastness and refusal to turn from our ideals. Our devotion to idealism sets us apart and we must never shy away from it; instead, we must wear it as a badge of courageous honor and imbue our ideals in our actions.

However, we must also maintain self-awareness. Maurice Nicoll, the British psychiatrist, described the capacity for self-invisibility and human blindness:

We can all see another person’s body directly. We see the lips moving, the eyes opening and shutting, the lines of the mouth and face changing, and the body expressing itself as a whole in action. The person himself is invisible… If the invisible side of people were discerned as easily as the visible side we would live in a new humanity. As we are we living in visible humanity, a humanity of appearances… All our thoughts, emotions, feelings, imaginations, reveries, dreams, fantasies are invisible. All that belongs to our scheming, planning secrets, ambitions, all our hops, fears, doubts, perplexities, all our affections, speculations, ponderings, vacuities, uncertainties, all our desires, longings, appetites, sensations, our likes, dislikes, aversions, attractions, loves and hates – all are themselves invisible. They constitute “one’s self.”

Religion can help with this process. Karl Marx’s famous line dismissing religion as the worthless “opiate of the masses” has been taken out of context over time. In fact, Marx was actually describing the enormously powerful influence and ubiquity of religion. Consider the line in its context:  karl marx image

Religion is the general theory of the world, its encyclopedia, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and the general ground for the consummation and justification of this world… Religious suffering is at once the expression of real suffering and the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless people. It is the opium of the people.

One of the crucial aspects of religion is that we don’t just engage in private spirituality but engage with the power of interconnected synergistic striving – that of collective covenant. While interacting and sharing our religious traditions and practices within a community, we affect each other deeply and come to grow together. Theodore White, a political journalist, describes how a piece of metal and a block of gold, when held together, will invisibly exchange molecules with each other, in the same way people share parts of themselves with others:

When people are pressed close, they act the same way. Part of you enters them, part of them enters you. It is humbling and frightening to think that every person you’ve hated, or feared, or ran away from, or even loved is now a part of you. It is humbling and exacting to know that by our merely being together over the years, throughout close proximity, something happens within us that even science cannot describe.

One of the by-products of communal interaction and support is the inspiration of deeper thinking and encouraged creativity. Yet, even in solitude and aloneness, man is creative, endowed with independent thinking and ingenuity. From the beginning of time, humans have always had creative potential, even in isolation. R’ Yose taught about how the first man, Adam, acted creatively to breed mules:

Two things entered the thoughts [of G-d] to be created on erev Shabbos, but were not created until the departure of Shabbos. At the departure of Shabbos, He placed in Adam understanding reflective of the Divine model. And [as a result] Adam brought two stones and ground them together, and flame shot out from them. He brought two animals [a horse and a donkey] and crossbred them, and a mule issued from them (Pesachim 54a).

The teaching from R’ Yose relates to the more fundamental question of how people function within societies and learn. For centuries, philosophers and laymen have been debating the merits and weaknesses regarding learning collectively as compared with learning independently. The famed liberal philosopher John Locke argued that one should be educated within the norms of community, whereas philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that one should be isolated from the norms of the community, since each individual is unique and requires his/her own development according to his/her nature.

Rousseau makes a very important point in his position, that one must be oneself. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that one of the most spiritually poisonous types of religious life is to engage in activity because someone else does it or because it is one’s own routine.

On the other hand, as Jews, we understand the power of community and of habitual ritual. We can and must find opportunities to support each other, lift each other to new spiritual heights, and help each other learn and grow. One of the greatest gifts we can ever give another is to light their spiritual fire and inspire them to fulfill their life purpose. In each encounter, we have the choice and power to lower another or to raise them up! We rise in solidarity when we help others rise. Each moment provides this holy opportunity and we must not forsake that.

In all we do in life we must strive to be fully engaged, ever mindful of the meaningfulness in all of our action, and cognizant of the power we have to lift our brothers and sisters to new heights. Through learning, leading, and prayer, we have such an incredible opportunity to reach new levels within ourselves and embrace the light that burns inside. We must cultivate that light to truly live! There is no need to wait until we have more time, more money, fewer responsibilities; as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested, all we must do is turn our souls on and we will connect to the marvelous. It is my prayer that we live each day with open hearts, open minds, and open souls, ever aware of others and ourselves. flame image

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.
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